THE STING (1973)
The Grift That Keeps On Giving...
In the annals of Best Picture winners, The Sting has to be among the more curious ones. It isn't a serious film by any stretch. In fact, The Sting is gleefully and openly a lark, a sly, witty film part comedy part caper. I'm going to say this up-front: the 'twist' ending, at least to me, was pretty obvious. In fact, apart from one minor surprise this idea that The Sting is this wild and twisty tale is a bit far-fetched.
That doesn't mean it's not any fun or any good. Far from it: The Sting is a delight from beginning to end.
Joliet, Illinois, 1936. Grifters Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), and Joe Erie aka the Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe) pull a quick con on Motolla (James J. Sloyan). Unbeknown to the three, Motolla works for crime kingpin Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), and Lonnegan doesn't take kindly to Chicago losing $11,000 to a group of nobodies. Lonnegan orders the three found and money returned. Hooker has already blown his share on the tables, and then finds Luther, his mentor, has been thrown out the window. With both the thugs and crooked cop Lt. Snyder (Charles Durning) after him, Hooker flees for his life.
On the lam, Hooker finds Frank Gondorff (Paul Newman), Luther's old protégé who himself is hiding from the FBI. Gondorff is upset about Luther and wants to take Lonnegan down, so he cooks up an elaborate scheme to sucker Lonnegan out of hundreds of thousands with the help of other cons who join forces all to get even with the man who killed their friend.
The Sting builds this scheme slowly, Gondorff putting the pieces slowly, Hooker, now his protégé, coming close to being discovered by the unsuspecting Lonnegan, who thinks through circumstances that Hooker is named Kelly and wants to in turn screw Gondorff, whom Lonnegan knows as Shaw, boorish card shark who hoodwinked Lonnegan into losing big.
Into this mix comes a secret assassin who has tracked Hooker down, an FBI agent who wants Gondorff and squeezes Hooker into helping him and Snyder, and the ultimate con on the master con, leading to an amusing conclusion where the real mark...is the audience.
Again and again, I'll say that the big twist in The Sting, at least for me, isn't one. In fact, I was expecting it and could see it a mile away. It was clear that this twist (and no, I won't tell you what it is, for that would be in very Polk taste) was the best way to handle things. However, this is one of the things that makes The Sting such a great film: David S. Ward's screenplay is one of the sharpest and shrewdest scripts in how it handles the long game.
Through each step (The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, and The Sting), Ward's script gives us just enough to fill us in, but holds enough back to where when we go back to it, we see that they were telling us everything by hiding it in plain sight. About the only point of contention I would have involves Salino, the hitman Lonnegan put on Hooker. It's logical, but I didn't get the sense that with Salino, we were given the necessary clues to give us the conclusion. I think this is one time we were slightly misdirected.
This is interesting in that Lonnegan is suppose to be a particularly violent thug, but as played by Shaw (which must have been a bit of an irony to have Robert Shaw play against a character named Shaw) his menace is more quiet than overtly vicious. Shaw's Irish master criminal was excellent: a man who thinks he's getting away with his old tricks whose hubris blinds him to how he's being played. The final scene where he's told "Place it on Lucky Dan" only to find the wording has a slightly different but highly important meaning is brilliant: the fear and rage as he sees that he's going down while still not realizing he's been had.
Newman and Redford made such a great pair that it is surprising that this was their second and I think final collaboration (after Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid). I think Newman has less to do as the cool hand Gondorff, but he still exudes command as he plots every move (even those involving the less experienced and more impetuous Hooker). Redford, curiously enough, would earn his only acting Oscar nomination for The Sting, and I think well worth it as the sometimes naïve, sometimes dumb, sometimes wise guy Hooker.
Other smaller performances, like Harold Gould's Kid Twist and Durning's shady detective are also excellent. Of particular note is Eileen Brennan as Billie, Gondorff's 'girl Friday'. She is sassy and clever and as determined to bring Lonnegan down as the others.
While it's not often I mention this, the style of The Sting goes to Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of ragtime (particularly Scott Joplin's The Entertainer) and Edith Head's brilliant costumes. All the elements came together under George Roy Hill's direction (or misdirection) if you like.
In so many respects, The Sting works so well as a film that the greater pleasure comes from not seeing the slow burn rather than trying to keep ahead of Lonnegan and the double or triple-dealing going on. An unapologetic lark, it's more fun if you don't think about it (though it works quite well if you do).
The Entertainer is taking a bow...
1974 Best Picture: The Godfather Part II